Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Shrug

Charlotte Bronte makes me crazy. I know from Mrs. Gaskell's biography, with it's many letters, what a brilliant woman she was; resourceful, compassionate, supremely intelligent, a good sister and daughter, a true friend and a great and dedicated artist. I know from my many attempts to read Jane Eyre what a remarkable writer she was. But I can not like Jane Eyre, not because of her circumstances and suffering -- what great heroine does not suffer? -- but because her forbearance, her resourcefulness, her intelligence and fortitude, her character, in short, is so balefully, insufferably admirable as to be exhausting. Reading Jane Eyre is like watching someone being made to swim the English Channel alone, in mid-winter, at night, in boots. Charlotte Bronte drives me crazy because she put her there, laced her boots on, and then felt compelled to constantly call to my attention the frigid temperature, the moonless night, the solitude of the sea, the uncomplaining girl in the water.

Reading Villette, I am encouraged to find Lucy Snowe already wrecked. This is a survivor's story, told in seemingly pretty bitter retrospect. Clearly, things did not go well, and this time I've only to be told how, if never quite why. Good. I can respect a bit of furious obfuscation in an entirely less agreeable old body, reflecting on her unhappy youth. And if there is still a creeping simper, the reflexive romantic twinge or two, I can, here, it seems, trust that that will all be knocked out of poor Lucy by the time she comes to the end of her telling. Because just when I begin to think I'm doomed to spend another eternity sitting with the poor benighted creature, feverish and alone in an empty boarding school, pining for life, but afraid to go for a walk in the park, Lucy gets to go to an exhibition and describe the main attraction in the picture gallery thus:

"It represents a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat -- to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids -- must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material -- seven and twenty yards, I should say, of drapery -- she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans -- perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets -- were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed among them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery, smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore name 'Cleopatra.'"

How hilarious is that?! And how marvelous that Charlotte Bronte's Lucy could tell that of herself without apologizing either for her youthful Philistinism or her opinion? Jane Eyre, caught out a moment later by a man, would have blushed. Lucy Snowe shrugs. I am so thankful for that shrug. So on I go.

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